DC Toll Operators Are Scamming, Drivers Say

     ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – The operators of toll roads in the D.C. metro area assess illegal penalties against drivers over misfiring E-Z passes, a federal class action says.
     Jo-Ann Brown and Mary Pizarro, both of Virginia, filed the complaint Wednesday along with Maryland resident Michele Osborne against the corporations that operate the 95 Express Lanes and 495 Express Lanes, high-occupancy toll lanes that commuters use to avoid traffic congestion along the Capital Beltway.
     Claiming that the express lanes have not been as financially successful as projected, the women say that Transurban USA and others are attempting to buoy profits by maliciously charging excessive fees when commuters miss payments.
     Brown, Pizarro and Osborne each got hit with thousands of dollars of administrative and late fees for missing toll amounts of between $5 and $20, according to the 49-page complaint.
     In addition to challenging the fees as excessive relative to the negligible cost of the tolls, the lawsuit says the infractions should never have occurred because each woman had her E-Z Pass properly installed in her vehicle but the express lanes failed to register the transponders.
     Instead of delivering a timely notice of purported toll violations, Transurban and its affiliates “turn minor toll violations into huge, crippling fines and penalties,” the suit says.
     Transurban’s collections agents then sue drivers to collect the “inflated and illegal” fines and fees, according to the complaint.
     In addition to Transurban, the complaint names as defendants Fluor Enterprises Inc., Capital Beltway Express LLC, 95 Express Lanes LLC, Faneuil Inc. and Law Enforcement Systems LLC.
     Transurban allegedly owes its toll concession contract to Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995.
     The class notes that the PPTA regulates how a toll-lane operator can assess and collect fees – capping administrative fees for unpaid tolls at $100 per violation.
     Drivers allegedly cannot be assessed a civil penalty until a “court of competent jurisdiction” finds the vehicle owner to have violated the toll, the law says.
     The class says many toll violations occur through no fault of the drivers because Transurban’s equipment routinely fails to read valid E-Z passes.
     A tinted window or dead batter can also interfere with E-Z use, according to the complaint.
     Since a driver whose E-Z pass is in the vehicle but not working can often go through multiple tolls in a short period of time, they would face a succession of toll violations, the class says.
     Transurban and its affiliats wait until several violations have occurred before they “illegally seek additional fines and penalties based on their own delay,” according to the complaint.
     Drivers who know they missed a toll can pay a $1.50 fee on Transurban’s website within five days, but that fee jumps to $12.50 for later in the month and $100 after 30 days, according to the complaint.
     The class calls the increasing fee illegal since it does not reflect Transurban’s actual costs for collecting payments.
     Transurban allegedly assesses civil penalties separately if a driver has not paid after two invoices have been sent.
     The penalty starts at $50 for one purportedly missed toll, and increases to $250, $500 and then $1,000, for each successive violation, according to the complaint.
     Brown says she faced a summons for $3,413.75 over five missed tolls that should have totaled $4.15.
     Pizarro and Osborne had $20.50 and $16.75 in toll violations, respectively, and were assessed fees and penalties of $9,440 and $2,293.30, according to the complaint. Pizarro settled her case for $413.90, while Brown and Osborne each have court dates in June, the complaint states.
     In violation fair debt collection practices, the class notes that Transurban omits full disclosures in collection notices, delays summonses and does not sign summonses manually, the class says.
     The tactics allegedly pressure consumers to settle debts and not dispute the validity of the violations or the charges.
     Alleging tortious interference, violations of the Eighth and 14th Amendments and other claims, the class seeks restitution, punitive damages and an injunction against the unconscionable fee and penalty practices.
     The class is represented by Bernard DiMuro of DiMuroGinsberg.
     Attempts to contact the defendants by press time were not successful.

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